I’ve been reading a book called The Cult TV Book: From Star Trek to Dexter, New Approaches to TV Outside the Box. It’s a collection of scholarly essays on the phenomenon known as cult television, shows like Star Trek, Firefly, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Babylon 5, or Battlestar Galactica that gain a dedicated, and sometimes even massive, following of viewers who are deeply engaged in an ever-expanding and enriched reading of the universes, stories, characters, and themes contained within those shows. I’m fascinated by books and articles like this, particularly when it pertains to media I like or hobbies I participate in. Several of the articles so far have pointed out that the dedication of fans to these kinds of shows and their willingness to consume alternate media relating to those shows, such as websites, conventions, podcasts, fanfiction, and purchasing DVDs and other merchandise have impacted networks. Television networks have begun shifting their focus from creating shows that are (usually) insipid enough to appeal to the greatest number of people to focusing on niche markets of smaller, but more dedicated, viewers on networks such as HBO. The trend that once marginalized cult TV fans is now what helps TV networks make a profit as they design more and more shows to be more like original cult TV and tap into the love fans have for shows that reward attentive viewing.
This book has helped me start to understand a little more why I like the kinds of shows I like and how many of those shows are tailored to appeal to people like me, trends that I wasn’t consciously aware of before. I had noticed that shows like Firefly and Babylon 5 appealed to me because they just were better than other things on TV. The characters were more real, the stories more complex, the worlds richer and more detailed. Apparently those are traits that span a lot of cult TV shows; even the ones that don’t last long or get canceled prematurely can develop a small but extremely dedicated group of fans who wish that more people had discovered what they had and supported it. And the kinds of stories and characters and detail that make cult TV shows appealing to me are also present in the kinds of fiction I like. It helps that both tend to be in the sci-fi fantasy genre, which allows for a lot more to be said in metaphor than you could get away with in plain speech. And what makes me happy is that some of those underestimated, little-known stories can turn into mega-hits.
Take Harry Potter, for example. Now, I didn’t discover Harry Potter until after it had gone mainstream. In fact, I purposely avoided reading Harry Potter for years because it was so popular. I figured that anything that popular couldn’t be very good because the masses are stupid and have no taste. (At least, that’s what my snotty little 7th grade self thought.) However, my friend Foxglove Zayuri remembers discovering Harry Potter before it became popular and it was definitely part of the cult underground. It started out as just this weird, dinky little kid’s fantasy book with great characters, a rich world, and complex plots, and she loved it. At the time she read it, no one else knew what it was. Then, somehow, enough people read it and told others about it and before you knew it the world was swamped with Harry Potter stuff. And when another friend finally bullied me into reading the books (Goblet of Fire was the newest installment at the time), I was hooked. It was a wonderful fantasy with enough danger and darkness to feel realistic, but not so dark that I got depressed because it was TOO realistic. Everything about the books was amazing and I lapped it up.
However, keep in mind that this was when only the first four books had been released. Now I’m going to segue into more dangerous territory. (I ask that Harry Potter fanatics and Harry Potter flamers please refrain from leaving comments, or perhaps stop reading here. I don’t care for either extreme.)
Part of the reason a cult media item, be it book or movie or TV show, holds such appeal is because it fulfills a need, the need for a good story presented in a new and fascinating, even unexpected, fashion. The first four Harry Potter books did that for me. The fifth, sixth, and seventh books felt like a betrayal of that need. Yes, I admit, I did not care for the last three books because they were so dark. Yes, I know this change is part of what makes the series so appealing to so many people, and yes, I know those are her books, her stories, and she can do what she wants with them. I’m not debating that. The evolution of the series from a lighter, child-like story into something for adults as the readers and Harry himself grew is an impressive, even laudable accomplishment from a literary standpoint. As a writer, I can only admire what J.K. Rowling has done with her books (excepting the seventh book, which desperately needed more editing). As a reader, I was infuriated by it.
Why? Because the way the books evolved was not consistent with the reason I started reading them in the first place.
Let me explain. When I chose books to read, I am, primarily, looking for something different from the real world. An escape from the mundane into the fantastic where good triumphs more often than not and there is a balance to story, karma visibly at work, if you will. (Please see my entry “A Few Words on Character Deaths” for further elaboration.) The first Harry Potter books offered that. Harry and his friends got into trouble, faced real danger, but things always turned around. The end of the fifth book marked a turn for the worse that never really rose back into the light. (The Epilogue at the end of the seventh book was the only relief, and most people despise it as a “cop-out” that left too many things unexplained or too simple.) As good as it may be to surprise your readers, this change was highly unpleasant for me because it was no longer the same series I had started. It became far too much like real life, especially in The Deathly Hallows when people start dropping like flies at random. Yes, this is realistic, but if I want realism of that nature, I’d watch the news, not read a fantasy. Plus, I had the distinct impression that people were dying, not to serve the plot, but out of a vindictiveness on the part of the author. I have a feeling that J.K. Rowling started throwing so much death into the final book because she didn’t feel like writing anymore and was sick of the pressure being placed upon her (whether by fans or her publishers, I do not know. But the final book could have used a lot more editing.) I have no evidence for this, only intuition.
Please understand that I am not bashing darker or more realistic fantasy. In fact, I read plenty of darker stories, but the key difference between those and Harry Potter is that those other books never tried to be anything other than dark. They didn’t start off light and become dark, “tricking” me into a false sense of security or happiness. I hesitate to call what the Harry Potter series does “false advertising,” but it does feel a bit like that to me as a reader.
So a little reminder when you are writing: there are plenty of readers out there like me who don’t like being “tricked” in that manner. If your books are going to be light, say so and keep it that way. Same goes for the dark ones. That doesn’t mean you can’t experiment and take the story into unexpected or interesting territory. A story can be interesting without changing the overall tone or feel of the series. Just keep in mind that if you pull a tone-twist in your story like the one in Harry Potter, you are going to alienate and upset your readers.
2 thoughts on “Cult and Tone-Twists”
I know how it feels to resist reading a cult series; I've been avoiding Lord of Rings for years now and am still holding my ground, despite protest from friends and aquaintances alike! I'm just not a fantasy-lover, and I am much happier reading an historical biography or a well-written historical fiction novel. I did like the "Tales of Rowan Hood" series, however, because the writing was so good and because I am a Robin Hood fan. I was forced to read the first two Narnia books for school, and then abandoned ship and have not picked up the series again!I must admit that I have enjoyed reading my friends' fantasy writings, but that has a great deal to do with the fact that we have personal relationships and so the writings come to life for me. I much prefer fantasy stories that are set in a far-away land as opposed to ones that throw in wild creatures and fantastic happenings. That's an interesting point your making about tone-twists in stories. I really must keep that in mind with my historical fiction. The novel I'm currently working on starts out with a mood of tension but also playful romance. The plot gets much darker as war breaks out and two of the main characters are maimed/killed. I want to make the ending hopeful, however. Do you think I'm throwing my readers through too many emotional twists? I'd value your opinion!
For what it's worth, Lord of the Rings really does read like a history book. It doesn't "feel" like a novel, but rather a historical retelling of actual events. The characters are, admittedly, rather flat in comparison with more modern fantasy works, but Tolkien originally wrote the story to give a place for his Elvish language to run free. He was a linguist and scholar, not a writer, and was always a little unnerved by the popularity of Lord of the Rings. But yes, I totally understand having genres you really like to stick with. If you ever do get the urge to find out the story, I would suggest watching the movies, the Extended Editions if you can, because it's very accurate and far more exciting to watch than read. ^_^Yes, I liked Rowan Hood too! I've only read the first book in the series, but it was quite nice. Narnia, like Lord of the Rings, is another one that I prefer to watch than read. And by "watch" I mean the older BBC versions, not the new, flashy ones. With regards to tone-twists in your story, I think that may depend on the execution. You should be okay with a mixture of tension and playfulness than turns darker as long as it doesn't change too abruptly and completely loses that playfulness. I would be careful how much playfulness is present though if you are planning on maiming or killing characters, especially main ones. If the world is established from the beginning as a place where important people are not immune from death, then I think it'll be fine. I'm sorry if that sounds contradictory or vague, but it's hard to tell without actually reading it to know if such a change in tone is too abrupt or not.